From atmospheric horror through thriller and coming-of-age story, these Icelandic movies are all masterpieces in their own league.
Iceland’s population reaches nearly 360.000 inhabitants, sprinkled over more than 100.000 km/2. Given the country’s remote location, far from the rest of Europe, it would seem quite a long shot to expect profound cinema coming from there. With a little opportunity to collaborate, and a small population, making films can’t be the go-to job, right?
However, Iceland is a genuine gem on the cinematic map of the world.
The industry’s thriving there now, with Icelandic movies regularly visiting film festivals around the world. The filmmakers have often a unique view of reality, with often breathtaking landscapes to accompany these compelling stories. A Netflix Original series is rumored to be in the works too, marking Iceland as one of the smallest countries to ever have a local production by the streaming platform.
If you’re not familiar with what Iceland has to offer film-wee, you’ve come to the right place. Here are 12 darlings that you should add to your watchlist.
Best Icelandic Movies Of All Time
#1 Outlaw: The Saga of Gisli (1981)
Dir. Ágúst Guðmundsson
Original title: Útlaginn (1981)
The beginnings of Icelandic cinema were marked by the urge to popularise a new sub-genre of “Viking movies”. Such stories, based on local folk tales, were supposed to open the pages of the country’s history – full of fantasy-like stories, creatures and dynasties – to the world.
One of the very first attempts of Viking movies was Outlaw: The Saga of Gisli (1981), directed by Ágúst Guðmundsson in 1981.
Produced on a minute budget, this raw movie is an excellent example of reviving folk on screen. The story finds a royal family feud, set in medieval times when Iceland was a pagan country. Ágúst Guðmundsson puts this fact to great use because a substantial part of Outlaw: The Saga of Gisli (1981) is dedicated to recreating pagan rituals and customs, all rooted in the island’s rich history. It’s a curious piece of cinema thanks to its off-beat, independent character and drives to create a vivid picture of 10th-century Iceland. Although be warned that some might find Guðmundsson’s film to be more of a docu-recreation rather than a full-fledged narrative.
#2 Sparrows (2015)
Dir. Rúnar Rúnarsson
Original title: Þrestir (2015)
Sparrows (2015) is a feature film born from a short movie. A bitter coming-of-age story, where a teenager named Ari finds it difficult to fit in the local society. He’s a gifted singer too, who spends much of his time on choir lessons, and through that music, Ari finds a way to cope with the unwelcoming peers and overwhelming alienation.
Rúnar Rúnarsson mixes lightness and darkness in a thrilling, Manichean clash. Sparrows (2015) beautifully balances between feelings of anxiety and depression, yet also happiness derived from fleeting moments. That combination leaves the audience with incredible emotional weight to carry.
Ari, played by Atli Oskar Fjalarsson, grows into a compelling protagonist, torn between his own fragility and the need to accept the more crude behavior of his peers. The film’s hypnotizing soundtrack is also worth praising – since Ari sings in a choir, much of the score is embellished with hypnotic vocalization that fans of Olafur Arnalds and Johann Johannsson will love.
It’s also a very special movie to me because that was my personal introduction to the beauty of Icelandic cinema. I also had the great honor to meet the director Rúnar Rúnarsson a few times during various film festivals, and chat about his works.
#3 Gnarr (2010)
Dir. Gaukur Úlfarsson
Original title: Gnarr
The first documentary on the list portrays the former president of Reyjkjavik – a comedian Jon Gnarr – and his bizarre campaign that kick-started as a part of a stand-up gig.
As unbelievable as it sounds, Gnarr (2010) captures the Icelandic spirit. Since Iceland’s a nation cut off from the rest of the world, there’s more zaniness in terms of their attitude and politics too. Quite obviously, it’s not easy living on an isolated island that’s both beautiful and insurmountable to inhabit entirely. So, if a comedian would ever make a successful politician – I’d bet my money on that happening on Iceland.
Jon Gnarr is a fantastic protagonist; a light-hearted, cheerful and honest person, who breaks the mold in the clustered and hermetic game of politics. As a piece of art, Gnarr (2010) manages to brighten up a gloomy day and unravel a bit of the far-away, Icelandic culture. But it also shows that politics benefit from honesty far more than anything else.
#4 I Remember You (2017)
Dir. Óskar Thór Axelsson
Original title: Ég man þig
Horrors are not particularly popular in the Icelandic film landscape, however it’s a goddamn shame. Considering the open spaces, monumental nature and very harsh climate, the circumstances beg for solid survival horrors.
I Remember You (2017) is a hidden gem from the island, where the horror elements are introduced to strengthen the effect of a non-linear, crime drama. The story follows a couple that moves to a house, which has a certain, ghost-related history. At the same time, the plot focuses on a murder investigation, outside of Reykjavik. The two stories will, at some point, intersect.
The director Óskar Thór Axelsson makes a magnificent use of the uncanny landscapes to cast a shadow on all of the characters involved in the house’s history. Icelandic filmmakers make a profound use of the nature, but in “I Remember You”, these solemn views look more dreary and inhuman than ver. At the same time, similarly to some other Scandinavian horrors, Axelsson escalates the gloomy atmosphere by pushing his character on the edge of sanity – are there really ghosts there, or is it just a delusion?
#5 Rams (2015)
Dir. Grímur Hákonarson
Original title: Hrútar
“Rams” stands as one of the most successful Icelandic film. It tells a story of two conflicted brothers, who live right next to each other, in remote area of Iceland. They hardly ever speak to each other, despite being the only people nearby. But one day their herds of sheep are struck by a disease that endangers their live stock. The omen of tragedy brings the two bothers closer again.
To be fair, the rural life that gets a portrait in “Rams”, is filled with absurd, and its slow pace’s hard to love. But the brilliantly written dialogues, let this simplicity work well with both comedy and drama. And even though the concept of two men disgruntled with each other isn’t particularly inventive, the way Hákonarson moulds and shifts it is what makes his drama resonate. On the one hand, “Rams” is a story of burying the hatchet, reuniting and forgiving. But as much as it is a family drama, it’s also a beautiful love letter to the traditional way of life on Iceland – modest and warm at heart.
#6 Borgriki 2: Brave Men’s Blood (2014)
Dir. Olaf de Fleur Johannesson
Original title: Borgríki 2
Only a few years of open border policy were needed to flood Iceland with white powder and cause massive problems with drug abuse. In such a tiny country, immigrant gangs are doing pretty well too. In “Borgriki 2: Brave Men’s Blood”, Olaf de Fleur Johannesson looks at the drug world of Reykjavik. The plot follows police officers and criminals, mixed up in one drug-related case, that gets both sides equally dirty.
The film is a fantastic example of how diverse the Icelandic movies get. Olaf de Fleur Johanneson’s film (director of Netflix Original horror called “Malevolent”), knows the drill when it comes to nailing a gritty cop thriller. From dynamic camerawork to ominous, vibrant score and riveting story “Borgriki 2: Brave Men’s Blood” has all the ingredients of Hollywood filmmaking. In comparison with many films appearing on this list, Johannesson’s movie will likely appeal to those seeking the Scandinavian grittiness from Jo Nesbo or Stieg Larsson.
#7 Under The Tree (2017)
Dir. Hafsteinn Gunnar Sigurdsson
Original title: Undir trénu
Two families and one tree. Sometimes that is just enough to make a compelling story of how good-hearted people go wild and go for the jugular just to prove their point. These two families are all but similar, but the director Hafsteinn Gunnar Sigurdsson finds wicked ways to reduce them to most primal instincts, which – as a result – makes a point of just how we’re all the same. By letting a silly quarrel over a tree spiral out of control, everyday people reveal their vicious nature. “Under The Tree”, which was Iceland’s Oscar contender in 2018, surprises by raising the tension in a seemingly banal story. One is certain – it won’t leave anyone neutral.
#8 Stormland (2011)
Dir. Martini Thorsson
Original title: Rokland
Part of the beauty of Icelandic cinema is its audacious use of dark humour and satire, often weaved together into the narrative. That’s what happens in 2011’s “Stormland” too. Based on a novel by Hallgrimur Helgason, it’s a drama about one man’s reckless pursuit after a better (subjectively better) world. Boddi (Olafur Darri Olafsson) leaves his tiny village to study in Germany, and returns after 10 years to enlighten the Icelanders. Through a blog and all kinds of social engaging, Boddi tries hard to change the simple, sometimes even callous people he knows from the past. However, when his teachings ring hollow, Boddi gets a gun and prepares for a revolution.
“Stormland” could be interpreted as a story of how madness and dangerous self-righteousness ride the same train. Boddi isn’t a bad guy, yet despite having good intentions, he develops rather worrying beliefs. Thorsson’s film is therefore an interesting study of having a screw loose, and how easy it is to fall apart mentally.
#9 Metalhead (2013)
Dir. Ragnar Bragason
Original title: Málmhaus
Death metal culture has spawned a few films, from effective horrors (“Pawtucket”) to well-handled dramas. “Metalhead” by Ragnar Bragason fits in the latter category. The story follows a girl named Hera, who after her father’s death, finds a remedy in black metal. But as she composes and explores the Icelandic scene, she also drifts away and wallows in anger and discontent.
“Metalhead” is a very powerful drama about the meaning of grief. Losing oneself in work, passion or even booze is like leaning over an edge of a skyscraper. Hera’s way to cope with this dreadful solitude is to create music. But director Bragason paints a broader picture too – he’s not only interested in a character study, but also how the surroundings shape this person’s choices. It’s a confident drama and one of Iceland’s prouder export products.
#10 Jar City (2006)
Dir. Baltasar Kormákur
Baltasar Kormákur, a director with Hollywood past and Netflix future, has never been tied to just one genre. “Jar City”, his 5th feature film, joined the rising tide of Scandinavian thrillers. Started by writers like Jo Nesbo and Stieg Larsson,
“Jar City” could easily receive a label of police procedural, because of how its director Baltasar Kormákur reveals a bodily fascination when it comes to crime. His narrative follows a worn-out cop (phenomenal role of Ingvar E. Sigurðsson), who investigates a gruesome murder of an old man. However this “typical Icelandic murder – messy and pointless” unexpectedly leads to forgotten cases dating almost thirty years back.
“Jar City” has a deep, thought-provoking cut, used to vivisect the for-tourists image of Iceland. Kormákur embraces his country’s darker side, all of its flaws. When seen through his eyes, Iceland seems both monumentally beautiful and secretly dangerous. But make no mistake – Kormákur is a patriot by all means, and this wickedness is, quite paradoxically, just another reason to visit the island.
#11 Mr. Bjarnfreðarson (2009)
Dir. Ragnar Bragason
Original title: Bjarnfreðarson
A foundation of Icelandic comedy style is escalation. It’s perfectly grasped in already mentioned on this list “Under The Tree”, but “Mr. Bjarnfreðarson” revolves around a similar idea of seemingly good people breaking bad. In Bragason’s film, this protagonist is Georg, who’s been released from prison. Georg is the know-it-all type, overly educated and socially awkward guy, and due to the detachment from society for years, Georg finds it difficult to settle in anew.
“Mr. Bjarnfreðarson” relies heavily on how Georg’s bitterness grows inside him. For him, freedom is a torture, as he’s “sentenced” to stay at his friend’s place. There’s also a third guy living there, and the three gentlemen are all outcasts. It’s a perfect setting for director Ragnar Bragason to tell a bittersweet story of reshuffling one’s life, and fitting in. I’d also say that “Mr. Bjarnfreðarson” serves as a good intro to Icelandic movies, as it requires zero knowledge about the country’s peculiar culture.
Dir. Hlynur Palmason
Original title: Hvítur, hvítur dagur
Hlynur Palmason’s second feature film is a true powerhouse of the drama genre. The plot revolves around an old man who builds a house for his daughter. During his work, he also takes care of his granddaughter. However, when he accidentally discovers his recently deceased wife might have had an affair, the man begins his own investigation.
It’s not easy to make peace with the circle of life. But in the case of “A White, White Day”, making peace requires finding the truth first. Such a feverish pursuit after it gets a unique treatment in Palmason’s film. On the one hand, this is a perfect example of slow-burn character study, with a tremendous role of Ingvar Eggert Sigurðsson in its center. But there’s more layers to the film. “A White, White Day” works as a family drama too, and even as a coming-of-age story when seen from the perspective of the granddaughter. Thanks to this multilayered plot, Palmason manages to keep the audience glued, even despite very modest visual tools.
Share your favourites from Iceland in the comments!